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All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood Hardcover – January 28, 2014
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Author One-on-One: Jennifer Senior and Curtis Sittenfeld
Curtis Sittenfeld: As a journalist, you’ve written about a wide range of topics, including pop culture and politics, so I’m wondering why parenthood is the subject that elicited a book from you.
Jennifer Senior: You’re right, and if this were a parenting book, it wouldn’t even occupy the same hemisphere as the other pieces I’ve done. (Confession: I have purchased exactly one parenting book in my lifetime.) But I consider this a social science book, and I’ve done plenty of social science stories over the years: About the psychological effects of high school on our adult years; about loneliness and cities; about burnout; about our obsession with happiness. Also, I think of this book as a series of mini-ethnographies—portraits of how American families live now—and that comes pretty naturally, having been an anthro major. Even when I wrote about the Senate, which used to be often, I treated it as an other-planetary universe with its own alien customs.
CS: This book has its origins in a much-buzzed-about New York magazine cover story. In that article but not in the book, you discussed your own experiences as a parent. Why didn’t you include yourself in the book? Can you share a bit about your family?
JS: So funny: I mentioned my own experience in just two paragraphs of that magazine story, but because they were the first two paragraphs, people misremember it as part-memoir. The only reason I did so – both early in the magazine story and in this book — was to alert readers that I, too, was a parent. But the specifics of my own story seem irrelevant, and too idiosyncratic from which to generalize. It’s far better to look at the full spectrum of social science research about families, and to talk to a wide variety of parents.
For the record, though: My husband and I have one six-year-old son, and my husband has two grown kids from a previous marriage. I entered their lives when they were adolescents, which made me realize how complicated that period was for parents.
CS: One of the book’s fascinating tidbits is the implication that parents have friction with teens in some sense because the parents are jealous.
JS: Jealousy is only a small part of it. (Though I’m amazed by Laurence Steinberg’s finding that fathers become depressed when their teenage sons start to date.) What generally seems to happen is that adolescents make their parents take stock of every life choice they’ve ever made—their marriages and careers especially. Teenagers can be so critical and rejecting that they expose all the holes in their parents’ lives: Now that my kid’s dispensed with me, all I have is my marriage and my job, and I’m not thrilled with either.
CS:In your marriage chapter, you suggest at one point that many moms would be better off being more like dads. Can you explain what you mean?
JS:I only mean this in the sense that fathers seem less frantically perfectionist about their parenting than mothers do, probably because they aren’t burdened by the same unattainable cultural ideals (real or fictional—Tiger Mom or June Cleaver.) It’s a crude generalization, yes, and of course there are exceptions. But both conversations and hard data make it clear that fathers feel much less pressure to play with their children during every free moment, and they’re much quicker to claim their right to free time. If mothers did the same, one wonders what would happen—Glad you’re back from that bike ride, now I’m going to the gym! It’s possible domestic divisions of labor would shift a little in their favor.
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Top Customer Reviews
For example, it was interesting to learn that parenting as we know it is a relatively new concept. It wasn't until after World War II, when the US began enacting child labor laws, that "childhood" came into existence. Before then, our kids were expected to work, contribute, or be invisible. Once we started protecting them more, though, and requiring less and less of them, our kids became, as Senior somewhat playfully puts it, useless. This uselessness (or maybe purposelessness is a gentler word?) has kind of snowballed over time and led to a whole host of other issues, including bored and unchallenged teenagers and parents who have made it their jobs to fill in their toddlers' spare time with hosts of educational, time-consuming, character-building activities. As kids have become more useless, their restlessness has grown--and parents have taken on the burden of relieving this restlessness.
In short, one of the lessons I am taking away from this book is that my kids (ages 4 and 2) need to be challenged!--and not necessarily through intense or chaotic play dates and heavily-managed planned activities. Instead, I'm focusing on increasing their responsibilities when it comes to taking care of themselves and our house.Read more ›
The book is really engagingly written and covers the various age ranges of childhood - newborns/toddlers, elementary school, preteen, teenage. There's also a discussion on the instituion of marriage that is woven into the different sections. Three types of intermingled narratives are used to great effect, frequently on the same page - case studies, where the author has observed families as they raise, educate, feed, play with and bring up their children; technical/research studies, where the author summarizes the results of various psychological papers and research on the various topics; and her own editorializing.
While not funny, the narrative is occasionally wry - particularly when the author is editorializing. But it is well put together and is an easy read. Did I learn anything? Well, it's not like a "how to" book (although there are some instances where discussions of how parents interact with each other or their children made me think "Oh, I should (or should not) do that"). What makes this book special is that I read it and, nearly on every page, could empathize with what was being said. Every tantrum, every disagreement, every tired evening, I'd been through it before. And it made me realize that as parents we are not the only ones going through all of this. It's the nature of being a parent, and we are not alone.
By talking directly to parents and carefully reviewing the existing scientific literature, Senior has crafted an incredibly insightful and easily accessible book about what happens to parents as a result of parenting.
Senior takes us through the various stages of parenting: planning, early childhood, the middle school years, and adolescence, making pointed and careful observations about how having children changes us, burdens us, and truly enriches our lives.
Senior makes no bones about who she is surveying: her book is strictly directed towards middle class parents. She doesn't discuss the upper crust, who can spend the big bucks outsourcing whatever painful parts of parenting they wish to eschew. She also doesn't discuss poorer parents, where financial burdens of existence may supersede many parenting issues in day-to-day life.
Modern, middle class parenting was born sometime in the 1940s. Between 1890 and 1920, child labor was banned, and the seeds of the era of the 'useless child' were planted. Since that time, children have been been transformed from unsentimental cogs in the family machine to cherished commodities that contribute little to a family's bottom line. Feeding, clothing, educating, and caring for our children places incredible emotional and monetary strain on parents and we have to do this with little overall contribution to the family effort from the children themselves.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Jennifer Senior makes a mistake early on, in All Joy and No Fun. She says that it isn't a Parenting book. I find this wrong. Read morePublished 1 day ago by Mr. Jared C. Serra
I love this book. My son is 13 months old and I've read it 8 times since he was born. There is just something that makes being a parent feel less overwhelming about sharing the... Read morePublished 9 days ago by joanna
I bought this for my daughter-in-law on the basis of an interview with the author I'd run across. My wonderful DIL accepted it with a big smile and well disguised rolled eyes. Read morePublished 25 days ago by Fillmore
Couple interesting points here and there, but not one single new or refreshing thought. Overall depressing and negative. Read morePublished 1 month ago by k_bauer
Much better than I expected - really well written, insightful and helpful.Published 2 months ago by molly
Some interesting parts with insight into how parenting affects the parents, got bogged down in the latter half, and honestly I got a little bored.Published 2 months ago by Chad Huberty
Based on research however doesnt feel like a literature review nor heavy scientific reading. I can relate to the storoes described as many parents go through similar problems.Published 2 months ago by evelyn roth
The research itself is a lot of what could be summed up as "common sense" but because we so rarely give ourselves the time to think through and examine these internal thoughts, it... Read morePublished 3 months ago by Amanda